GERMANTON — Bill Tesh started racing in June of 1966 — just more than 48 years ago.
He drove in $99 claiming races at Bowman Gray Stadium in Winston-Salem. “Anybody could buy any of the cars for $99,” Tesh said.
Tesh was in the Navy in 1966 — serving with an anti-submarine warfare squadron in Norfolk, Virginia. He’s been upside down in a vehicle eight times in his life, but he said the “scaredest I’ve ever been in my life is on a flight deck at night.”
Sitting in the office of his shop on Apache Drive in Germanton, Tesh recounted his time in the Navy. What happened to others; what happened to him.
Racing didn’t seem so scary after hearing about his experiences on a flight deck.
Three of the times he went upside down didn’t involve a race or a race car. Once he was riding with his mother. The second and third times he was also a passenger — the crashes a result of what he would call foolishness. “I was pretty wild back in the day,” he said.
Tesh bought an ultra-lite airplane, but his wife, Maxine, told him he could “race or fly, but not both.”
He gave up the plane — but not before he crashed that, too. He said he could give up anything — “anything but the racing.”
Tesh said he had been working on cars since he was “7-, 8, or 9-years-old. I’d get an old clunker and run around the farm. After I got my license, I tried the dragstrip stuff. That wasn’t exciting enough.”
He picked up his first feature win in the Hobby division at 311 Speedway in 1969. His car was a 1937 Chevrolet Coach with a 230 cubic-inch, six-cylinder motor, a big cam, and the heads cut down it to give it more compression. “I’m not sure I wouldn’t do more in it today than I’m doing,” Tesh said, jokingly.
He went on to win his first points championship that year. He won “four or five” features — the first of more than 170 career feature and heat victories.
Tesh also “left” 311 twice. “Over the wall,” Tesh explained. “Back then, we were just wild. There were no guard rails; just mounds of dirt.”
Tesh has been upside down three more times since those days, including a hairy experience in Charlotte when his car rolled over six times. Most recently, he flipped over in June at Friendship.
“I’m one of those people that if I do it, I say ‘Yeah, I did it,’” he said. “But that one — he couldn’t have planned it any better.”
Tesh said he didn’t want to identify the guilty party.
‘Ran out of talent’
There wasn’t a lot of cheating going on in the early days, he said. But there wasn’t a lot of protesting or inspecting going on either. “Back then,” he said, “you went back to work and tried to get faster.
“In the early days, the driver was much more important than the car,” he continued. “Now it’s the other way around.”
Tesh said it’s more about the shock absorbers, the suspension, and what he calls the “modern technology. It’s not like when you used to go to the junkyard and go out and replace it.
“Some of these guys who don’t have a lot of money, they can’t buy the very best stuff. It’s harder to run up front.”
Tesh said that explanation fits his Open Wheel Modified. “It’s an old car,” Tesh said. “My late model? I don’t have any excuses.”
He described his 2014 season as follows: “I’ve won two heat races; I’ve finished second twice; and I ran out of talent a bunch of times.”
Tesh has had enough talent to win four track championships — the one at 311 in 1969; back-to-back championships in the Super Street division in 1990 and 1991 at Friendship; and Late Model division championship at 311 in 2007.
It’s simple what keeps him going in 2014. “Just the driving,” he said. “I just love to drive the race cars.”
When asked, he couldn’t come up with a favorite moment to recall. Finally he responded. “Usually finishing,” he said and then after another hesitation, he added, “Finishing right side up.”
“He loves driving,” Maxine, his wife of 43 years come September. “He doesn’t care about the trophies.”
A lot of money has been spent on racing over the years and it doesn’t bother Maxine at all. “People say ‘he spent his money racing,’” she said. “I say to them, ‘when you play golf; when you’re fishing — you’re going to want to get the best this; the best that.’”
Maxine said the money has been well spent. It has been a “family thing.” The race track is where they have raised their family and it is a place where the family still goes.
Saturday night was his 268th night of racing at Friendship. He has more than 750 starts in the last 36 or 37 years since he started keeping track. He’s raced in Lancaster and Gaffney, South Carolina; in Toccoa and Lavonia, Georgia; in Cherokee; in Morganton; in Elkin; in Madison; in Westfield.
He thinks there were at least another 275 starts or so before those 750, giving him — conservatively — more than 1,000 nights of racing over his career.
‘A smaller number or a bigger car’
There were many stories told Monday afternoon. Some were a matter of life and death. Some were close calls. Some were about foolishness and senselessness. Some had elements of foolishness and senselessness, life, death, and close calls. The story about how he came to be No. 300 heavily leans in the direction of senselessness.
He was racing in “1985 or 1986” at 311. There were twin features that night. He couldn’t run the first one due to mechanical problems.
Before a lap was complete of the second race, he turned his car into the wall to avoid broadsiding a car in the first turn. Tesh said he hit the wall so hard, he “broke the crossmember from under the engine.”
When he went to the payout window after the race, he was told he didn’t start the race — therefore he wouldn’t be receiving any payout. And the rule was — if a driver didn’t complete a lap, he didn’t get paid for a start.
“I decided I’d put a big enough number on it they could see it,” Tesh said. Having a big number on the side of the car had nothing to do with whether he started the race or not or whether he would get paid the next time, but he has kept the number nonetheless.
Now the number is a bit of a joke. “I’ve been told,” he said, “that I need to either get a smaller number or a bigger car.”
At 68, there is certainly more racing behind him than ahead of him. He doesn’t have a time limit on when he stops. “Until his toes are turned up,” Maxine said.
“Until someone’s got to help me get in the car,” Tesh said.
While Tesh is second in the modified standings just past the halfway point of the season, he is not happy with how his No. 300 has been running. “Right now, we’re going to try to get the car handling better,” he said. “If we can’t get it going — we’ve got another one we’re working on.”
And as long as his toes are pointed in the right direction and he can get in and out by himself, Bill Tesh will be behind the wheel.
Jim Fuller may be reached at 336-258-4052 or Twitter @elkinareasports.